Peak peak Rumination 12: Halfway through living it

It’s not too late to catch up with the #TwinPeaksRewatch! Check the schedule at the bottom of this post!

This week our the #TwinPeaksRewatch is up to episodes 19 and 20, and as conspiracies deepen, who better to write about these episodes than the mysterious Matthew Dentith!

Illustration by Grant Buist (@fitz_bunny), check out his strip Jitterati.

You’ll also find below the details of the original NZ screening of these episodes, courtesy Paul Scoones.

Episode 19 – The Black Widow

Is it heretical, or scandalous to say that the middle of Twin Peaks’ season two introduces too many slight, or underdeveloped sub-plots, and seems mostly interested in spinning multiple plates, all in order to keep the audience interested? This is, after all, a show which has ostensibly solved its central mystery, ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ At this point in the season we have Ben Horne’s mental breakdown, Agent Cooper deciding to buy a house, the DEA investigation into Cooper’s activities across the border, Dick Tremayne’s suspicion little Nicky is a murderer, the titular ‘Black Widow’ plot line, and a missing U.S. Airforce Major. Twin Peaks has always been a soap opera at heart, but by the middle of season two it feels like a pastiche of not just soaps but also itself. Nothing has much weight. Well, except for the lurking presence of Windom Earle; more on that later.

The central plot of Black Widow concerns the death of Dougie Milton, whose wedding we saw in the previous episode. That episode set up something of a classic trope: two warring brothers, one getting married to someone eminently unsuitable (in this case, a much younger woman). Dougie’s brother Dwayne warned the wedding guests something untoward would happen, and now Dougie has been found dead in his honeymoon suite. Dwayne is adamant Dougie’s widow, Lana, is responsible. Lana does herself no favours, confiding to Hawk that the men she is intimate with tend to suffer tragic consequences.

Lana is presented as a femme fatale in Black Widow, men hanging off her every word. Yet she seems to have little motivation, or even the vaguest hint of guile; there is nothing in the writing or the performance which centres Lana as a credible murderer. Rather, she comes across as a creature of fantasy; not so much a woman who murders their mate, but someone men cannot resist, and whose passions taxed Dougie’s heart so much he died (presumably happily) in bed.

The more interesting plot in this episode concerns Dale Cooper’s new checked-shirt existence as a FBI agent on suspension. Looking for a homestead to call his own, Coop ends up looking at a vacant property which just so happens turns out to be where the local drug dealers conclude their deals. He takes the compiled evidence to DEA Agent Denise Bryson, in order to help clear his name (and hopefully get him back into a something a little less checked).

Coop and Denise make a wonderful pairing, and it’s somewhat refreshing to see Twin Peaks making Denise’s trans identity merely a facet of her character, as opposed to a plot point in its own right (well, at least in this episode). Whilst some residents of Twin Peaks might initially have balked at her appearance (cough cough Harry cough cough), by-and-large Denise is accepted for who she is. David Duchovny, whose acting outside of Twin Peaks can reliably be called ‘bored’, shines in the role (although, come a modern reboot, it’d be preferable to cast someone who was actually trans in the role).

The Black Widow, drug deals and checked shirts aren’t all Agent Cooper is kept busy with this episode; there is also the chess game he is playing with Windom Earle. The suggestion Earle is some terrible nemesis, or Moriarty to Coop was only rendered plausible earlier in the season by Miguel Ferrer selling the idea to the audience. After all, if the unflappable Albert was concerned Earle was out and about, so should we. Now we learn that Earle has seemingly anticipated Coop’s chess move before it was even published in the local paper. This suggests to the audience something Coop doesn’t seem to realise, or want to think; Earle might not be prescient. Rather, he could just be present…

Meanwhile in Twin Peaks, Mike, Donna’s ex (and seldom seen since early season one) complains that Nadine is hitting on him, Ed and Norma finally start talking to each other again, and Catherine starts to get her revenge on Josie, with Pete once again unable to believe that the women in his life might be bad people.

But the weakest element of the episode belongs to the ‘James as chauffeur’ plot line. I realise they needed to find something for each of the main cast to do, but James’ activities outside of Twin Peaks suggests he’s been exiled to the most banal of soap operas. Yet if the James plot line is half-baked, at least the story of Major Garland Brigg’s disappearance two episodes earlier, along with his reappearance at the episode’s conclusion, has some narrative payoff. Twin Peaks, in its first season, was not weird in a conventional sense. Rather, it was Lynchian, and season two has steadily lost its grip on that (presumably because of Lynch’s decreasing involvement in the series as it progressed). The Major Brigg’s abduction plot line recovers some of the tempo and tenor of early Twin Peaks, by returning Major Briggs in the middle of a storm, wearing a period piece Airforce uniform, and simply wanting to be with his wife and son (and have a strong cocktail). The pay-off for this little treat, though, has to wait for the next episode…

Episode 20 – Checkmate

Checkmate starts with Major Briggs seated on a stone throne, recounting the (lack of) experience of his missing days. We soon come to realise he is actually in the Sheriff’s office, telling his story to both Coop and Harry. Brigg’s story has all the features of an alien abduction experience, right down to Doc Hayward finding a strange mark on the nape of Brigg’s neck. All we need is for Denise to walk in, and The X Files theme to start playing.


Let us pause a moment to consider the character of Major Garland Briggs. Don S. Davis’ portrayal—at least in performance—is indistinguishable from his portrayal of General Hammond in Stargate SG-1. The fact that in this episode he mentions Project Blue Book (which we will get to in just a moment), and reappears post what seems to be a classic alien abduction event, has fuelled a number of fictional conspiracy theories and crossovers between Twin Peaks and the Stargate series. Add in David Duchovny as Denise Bryson, and you have—for some fans—a shared universe between Twin Peaks, the Stargate series, and The X Files.

Whilst the Bryson/Mulder connection is somewhat tenuous (they are both federal agents, but from quite different divisions, and have dissimilar temperaments), the Briggs/Hammond connection is promising. Both are senior military personnel, both have an interest in supposedly alien phenomena, and both act indistinguishably from one another. Is General George Hammond a younger Major Garland Briggs, who changed his name after the events in Twin Peaks? Did his work lead him to the Stargate programme? Given actor Don S. Davis’ death in 2008 (and thus unlikely to be making an appearance in the revival series), we might never know, but for certain fans, the link seems all too clear. None dare call it conspiracy.


Asked to start from the beginning, Brigg’s tells Coop and Harry that he worked on Project Blue Book, a U.S. Airforce investigation into UFOs. Whilst the project was disbanded, Brigg’s has been working off-the-books in Twin Peaks ever since. However, before he can reveal his findings about the mysterious White Lodge, the military police turn up to escort him off-screen.

Project Blue Book was an actual U.S. Airforce initiative (one of many) to investigate the UFO phenomena. It’s ostensible purpose (because in the domain of secret papers, no one is ever sure what the real purpose is) was to assess whether UFOs were a threat to U.S. national security. The project ran from the early fifties up to the late sixties, and, officially, nothing of particular interest was ever found. Whilst a few UFO sightings were left unexplained, at least according to the authors of the study, the existence of Project Blue Book has added fuel to the fire that there must be something to the UFO phenomena. Otherwise, conspiracy theorists of a certain stripe will say, why would elements of a superpower devote significant resources to the question?

Fictionalised uses of real world events are a common enough trope in TV that the TV Tropes website has devoted several pages devoted to the various sub-categories of the Roman à clef. The Twin Peaks variant brings in a curious element, however; Briggs talks about how he was investigating elements in the heavens and under the earth. The idea of alien life in the inner-Earth has a long history, from the fictional Vril, to cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. In our world Project Blue Book concerned putative `green men from outer space’, but in the fiction that is Twin Peaks the investigation—unless this was a particular fancy of the Major—concerned alien life both outside of, and within the Earth itself. As we will see later in the season, the Major’s continuing investigation into the White Lodge mingles the purported alien science of UFOs with the magic of the underground. In this respect Twin Peaks is echoing the works of John Keel, whose books—like The Mothman Prophecies—posit an Earth which is itself alien to human beings, a place where the distinction between science and magic is not at all clear cut. Indeed, this has been an undercurrent in Twin Peaks from the start; Agent Cooper’s investigative method has always had elements of the occult, and then there is Bob…

But these are plot points which will resurface later in the season; the bulk of Checkmate concerns the resolution of the Jean Renault plot line. Renault is a villain who always worked better on paper; as a performance Renault comes across as almost entirely disinterested in what is going on around him. His expression of anger over the deaths of his brothers comes across as a languid duty, rather than a passionate response. `I am the villain,’ his portrayal seems to say, ‘I am expected to get my revenge!’

Renault is the kingpin of the local drug trade, and the architect of Coop’s suspension from the FBI. So, it seems a shame that such a purportedly clever operator dies in a shoot out in a farm house. It’s not surprise the trap Coop, Denise, and Harry set up fails, given everything relied upon Ernie; Ernie’s hyperhidrosis sets his wire ablaze, causing Renault to become justifiably suspicious that something is up.

It’s time to talk about Denise, or, ‘Dennis’ in this case. Denise’s plot line in this episode only makes sense because it services the story, not her character. Denise goes undercover as ‘Dennis’, a drug buyer, with Ernie acting as his contact. Yet Denise’s willingness to play at Dennis is a somewhat odd character moment. Dennis is, after all, Denise’s deadname, the name she had pre transition. Whilst not all transgender people avoid their deadname, it’s a nonetheless tone deaf moment for the character. If Denise is going to go undercover as a man, why revert to that particular name, when she could have chosen Bruce, the Australian drug procurer, or Stanley McManley, the stereotypical jerk from Boston? Dennis, however, does not ring true. Also, I suspect DEA agents in undercover operations are told to avoid using known names as covers. It’s probably a legal thing.

Anyway, Denise escapes the bungled drug buy when Coop volunteers to take the place of the hostages. The resulting stand-off comes to an end when Denise (now in disguise as a food delivery lady) enters the house and lets Coop shoot Renault dead after he grabs her gun from her garter.

This, of course, raises the question of whether the character of Denise was back-ported from the need to resolve the Jean Renault situation; ‘We need to have the character come in in disguise as a woman!’ ‘Say, how about we make the fact they appeared as a man the real disguise?’ ‘How would that work?’ Etc.

Also, is Coop still interested in buying the house? His interest in the property seemed to disappear when he found out it was a drug dealers’ haunt, but I bet the realtor is hoping he’ll call her back about it real soon…

Other events that happen his week: Dick and Andy investigate the seemingly murderous Nicky, Ed and Norma profess their love for one another, Hank gets beaten up by Nadine, Catherine changes her mind about Ben again, and James has sex with an older woman. That last plot line… Sigh. It sucks the oxygen out of an otherwise interesting episode.

Which brings us to the end, or ends. This episode commits the sin of having two endings. The first isn’t so much of a surprise; for most of the season we have been spending a lot of time with Shelly, whose home life seems less than ideal. Having the actor who plays her husband, Leo, consigned to a seemingly comatose state be in every episode always suggested that a) Leo has to wake up, and b) Eric Da Re either has the best or the worst agent. Leo’s ‘return to life’ is done to great effect, and the episode could/should have ended there. However, as soon as we get that jump scare we transition to the Sheriff’s Department, to find Windom Earle has delivered his next chess move in a most grotesque fashion; a red-headed corpse points to the next move on a carefully laid-out chess board.

Two endings are not better than one. The jump from Shelly’s dilemma to Coop and Harry discovery of Earle’s gift robs the show of narrative urgency, and arguably does the character of Shelly a huge disservice. Shelly has had little to do this season other than act as the mother to her husband and her wayward boyfriend, and the very moment where Shelly finally has something to do is undercut by returning focus to Agent Cooper. Still, at least we can say that Windom Earle is definitely in town. But, really, what’s happening with Shelly and Leo? That’s what I want to know.

M, aka Matthew, aka Dr. Matthew R. X. Dentith, is a Romanian-based Aucklander who writes on the social epistemology of conspiracy theories. Their works can be found at episto.org, and tweets under the handle @HORansome.

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Grant Buist’s livetweets of these episodes (click on a tweet and scroll down to read the whole sequence):

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Listings for the original NZ screenings, thanks to ace researcher Paul Scoones:

Episode 19: ‘The Black Widow’
NZ: 7 October 1991; Monday 11:05-12:05 (US: 12 January 1991)

Cooper’s white glove test yields a clue, Deputy Andy and Dick Tremayne are concerned about little Nicky’s past and Bobby makes a quick buck.

Episode 20: ‘Checkmate’
NZ: 14 October 1991; Monday 11:05-12:05 (US: 19 January 1991)

Cooper and Truman arrange a trap for Jean Renault, Deputy Andy and Dick Tremayne pry into Little Nicky’s background and an old lover interrupts Ben Horne.

(See Paul’s full post for more information on Twin Peaks in New Zealand.)

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Rewatch Schedule:
Join the hashtag #TwinPeaksRewatch
15 Jan: Pilot: Starting at the start
22 Jan: Eps 1 and 2: Damn fine cup of coffee
27 Jan: Eps 3 and 4: Laughing at prayers
5 Feb: Eps 5 and 6: Invitation to Love
12 Feb: Ep 7*: Biting the bullet
19 Feb: Ep 8: We want to help you
26 Feb: Eps 9 and 10: Bury her deep enough
5 Mar: Eps 11 and 12: Sometimes the Can-Do Girls Can’t
12 Mar: Eps 13 and 14: Missoula, Montana
19 Mar: Eps 15 and 16: That gum you like
26 Mar: Eps 17 and 18: Blessed with certain gifts
2 Apr: Eps 19 and 20
9 Apr: Eps 21 and 22
16 Apr: Eps 23 and 24
23 Apr: Eps 25 and 26
30 Apr: Eps 27 and 28
7 May: Ep 29**
14 May: Fire Walk With Me***
21 May: NEW TWIN PEAKS!

* optional: The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and The Autobiography of Dale Cooper books
** optional: The Secret History of Twin Peaks book
*** optional: The Missing Pieces

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